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Why I Read Aloud to My Children

http://rss.desiringgod.org/link/10732/15007398/why-i-read-aloud-to-my-children

Recently, I completed a long journey with my twin 11-year-old boys. The trek took us months, yet required no planes, trains, or automobiles. In fact, we never left the house for this particular voyage, though we did venture outside once to sit by an autumn fire.

This was a journey of over one million words — 1,084,170 to be exact. And it was a trek on which we traveled every mile, every chapter, and every word together.

Over the course of about 18 months, beginning when COVID “lockdown” descended in the spring of 2020, and ending in September 2021, I read aloud to my sons the seven books of the Harry Potter series. We invested two or three bedtimes each week to it, pausing for a few weeks between books. But we kept plodding forward a chapter (or two) at a time.

My best estimate is that it took us, in all, about one hundred hours.

Read-Aloud Revival

As a new dad, reading aloud more than a million words, for one hundred hours, would have seemed not only daunting but impossible. Perhaps you feel the same way right now. I get it; I’ve been there. But please don’t give up yet. Reading aloud, especially to our children, is a skill worth developing — one that is honed not just over weeks and months, but over years.

“Reading aloud, especially to our children, is a skill worth developing.”

My dear wife, with input from friends and a podcast called Read-Aloud Revival, first bent my ear to consider what an opportunity and joy it could be to read aloud as a habit to our children — not begrudgingly, but eagerly. We decided early on as parents that we would spare expenses in other areas to be able to invest well in good children’s books. And that we would do our best to limit and say no to other activities — especially ones involving screens! — to put life on pause, sit down, slow down, and enjoy reading aloud to our children.

Ten years ago, with no read-aloud experience, I felt almost winded to read a longish children’s book to our toddlers after a tiring day of work. I had not yet developed any read-aloud stamina. I hadn’t done any significant, regular reading aloud in my life. But most critically, I had not yet discovered the joy it can be to be present, and engaged, and contagiously happy with your children in these moments gathered around an open book.

There and Back Again

One on-ramp for some dads is that we love to do voices. This brought me particular pleasure once the boys were old enough (I think it was age 5) to read them The Hobbit, using my amateur British accent for Bilbo, gruff voices for the dwarves, and (of course) my best impressions of Ian McKellen and Andy Serkis for Gandalf and Gollum. Now, this was no board book — it took weeks, and patience. At times, the boys were bored (Tolkien doesn’t do candy), but we pressed through. There were life lessons in that for all of us. And in the end, we felt like we had accomplished something significant together. We read a big book together — and my concerns that Gollum might be too scary, and show up in nightmares, were addressed by my being there with them, reading to them, and talking to them about their fears. I was there to mediate the scariest moments, like riddles in the dark.

So too, my uncertainty about whether the boys, at age 10, were ready to handle the whole Harry Potter series was a good reason to make the trek with them. Being unsure, I had two lazy options in front of me. I could have shelved my concerns and just turned them loose to read for themselves or listen to the audiobooks. Or I could have erred on the side of caution and kept telling them, “Not yet, not yet.” Instead, I decided to make the trek with them. What they were ready for, we enjoyed together. What they weren’t, I was there to mediate, ready to pause and give context, ready to stop and explain, ready to answer questions, and ready to ask how their minds and hearts were receiving it. Most of all, being there, I was ready to process out loud how I myself was receiving the story with Christian eyes, ready to highlight not only pointers to the gospel (and there are many, especially in the final book!), but also important life lessons (there’s no lack of those either, particularly in Dumbledore’s monologues).

And all the while, with kids aged 3 to 6 to 11, Dad’s stamina for reading aloud was increasing. And as my read-aloud stamina and experience have increased, so has my joy.

God’s Word, Read Aloud

As my wife so helpfully prodded me to read aloud to our children, I would encourage other Christian moms and dads to do the same — to discover for yourself what an opportunity and joy reading aloud to your children can be. Reading aloud is, after all, a remarkably Christian pastime.

For twenty centuries, reading aloud has been critical for how the people of Christ have heard his voice. The printing press has been around for only a quarter of church history, and only recently have our shelves at home been filled with multiple Bibles. Christ has spoken to his people across history through the reading aloud of Scripture, at the heart of the gathered assembly of the church. As the apostle Paul directs his protégé and delegate in Ephesus, “Devote yourself to the public reading of Scripture” (1 Timothy 4:13). Without personal copies of the Bible at home, and on smartphones, how else would the people of Christ hear his word in the words of the apostles? The pastors had to read it aloud.

So Paul wrote his letters to be carried to the churches and read aloud (Ephesians 3:4; Colossians 4:16; 1 Thessalonians 5:27). So too, the apostle John wrote down his apocalyptic vision, anticipating its reading aloud (Revelation 1:3). And this, of course, happened in a first-century Jewish context, in which the people of God had long been people of a Book, and at the center of the life of the synagogue was the reading aloud of the Scriptures (Acts 13:15, 27; 15:21, 31; 2 Corinthians 3:14–15), as Jesus himself did on that memorable occasion in his hometown of Nazareth (Luke 4:16).

Joys of Analog Life

As parents who cherish these quickly passing years with our children, we love how reading aloud together builds our kids’ vocabulary, teaches them about the world and the experiences of others, and develops bonds and relationship with us. And of course, time spent reading aloud to our kids is time not on screens — which can be good for both them and us.

And for dads in particular, Jim Trelease, author of The Read-Aloud Handbook, now in its eighth edition, notes “the important role of fathers in developing boys as readers.” Trelease says when he wrote the first edition in 1982, “I thought we had a bit of a male reading problem. Not anymore. Now it’s a huge problem.” His first edition had a few pages for dads. His latest edition has a whole chapter called “The Importance of Dads.”

Not Too Late

For moms and dads who are not currently reading aloud with regularity to your kids, I’d encourage you to try it, and stick with it for the long haul, despite the initial friction. Once or twice, or a few weeks, won’t be long enough for you to really see the effects, develop your stamina, and learn how to enjoy what a real habit can produce.

Perhaps my main piece of counsel would be to read with energy. When Dad and Mom put more into it, the whole family gets more out of it. Even after a long day, it’s worth pushing yourself to not just go through the motions and read monotone. Put energy into it. Pour in more enthusiasm than you first think is needed. Read with color and warmth. Do voices, if you’re that type. Pursue contagious joy, not infectious boredom. You are the teacher, not the book. The book is your prop, your medium, your context for relationship with your children, and your opportunity to invest in them, their maturity, and their personality.

Crowning Jewel

For parents like me, who want to make the most of reading aloud not just to entertain our kids but to disciple them, one caution might be not to preach or moralize too often — and on the other hand, not to miss the important teachable moments altogether. I try to be sensitive to my children’s hearts, alertness, and levels of interest. When they’re bored or grumpy or the tank is low, I lean on the book, and read for shorter spans. When they’re enraptured in the story, I consider it a better time to pause and impart key principles or life lessons, and read for longer.

“The crowning jewel of reading aloud is not Tolkien, Lewis, or Rowling. It’s God.”

Similarly, I’d encourage both funny books, where you laugh together (like Silly Tilly, or Caps for Sale) and serious books. Kids are ready for different stories at different ages. Because of my special love for Middle-earth, our first big, serious book was The Hobbit. Then we started Narnia, and then went on to another series. When COVID came, time finally seemed right for Potter. Now, with that journey behind us, we’ve started Lord of the Rings for our 11-year-olds, and The Hobbit with our 7-year-old daughter.

But the crowning jewel of reading aloud is not Tolkien, Lewis, or Rowling. It’s God. All along, from board books to storybook Bibles, to reading the Real Thing, we are training our children to hear the very words of God himself in Scripture, and receive them with joy.

The greatest read-aloud privilege of all is reading aloud the Bible.

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